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Should You Apply Serum or Moisturizer First? We’ve Got the Expert Answer

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Let’s face it—skincare is confusing. In addition to determining which ingredients pair well with others, you also have to figure in formulas, and even more so, their order of application. Honestly, if it weren’t for all the expert intel we study to write these articles, we wouldn’t understand either. When it comes to the most basic 101 tidbits to know, how to apply and use serum and moisturizer are key to a skincare regimen. Once that’s figured out, is serum or moisturizer first? Before we get into our expert-led breakdown of the topical products below, it’s important to address what defines a serum or a moisturizer. 

“A face serum is a targeted elixir that’s lighter in molecular weight but packs a punch with its ingredients,” says licensed esthetician Rachel Lozina. “Typically, serums are targeted for either anti-aging, hydration, acne, or brightening the skin. A moisturizer is a cream that’s usually thicker and meant to occlude the skin and create a shield-like barrier of hydration.”

About the Experts: 
Rachel Lozina is a licensed esthetician who founded Blue Water Spa in Oyster Bay, NY.
 Varuni Palacios is an esthetician and owner of Studio Varuni in Los Angeles.

Serum or Moisturizer: Which Goes First?

While using the right formulations and targeting the most important concerns are important, applying products in the correct order are equally key. “Ultimately, it comes down to efficacy and absorption,” Los Angeles-based esthetician Varuni Palacios says. “You always want to apply thinnest to thickest—so serums first and moisturizers second. And as you’re applying your serums, you want to apply water-based formulas first and oil-based second.”

Why Serum Should Be First

Thinner products like serums are typically treatment steps. This means they’re meant to incorporate restorative, corrective, and active ingredients like exfoliating acids (AHAs/BHAs), retinols, niacinamide, peptides, and growth factors. Therefore, “We want all of these good ingredients to penetrate our skin,” says Palacios. “So we apply them immediately after cleansing and before moisturizers, for optimal absorption.”

The expert goes on to say that moisturizers and oils are applied after serums “because they’re thicker—which is so they can be hydrating, restorative, and reparative. They’re meant to seal in the ingredients from serums.”

Facial oils (optional) should be the final step before SPF. “Face oils follow moisturizers and creams because they form an occlusive layer to further seal in hydration and prevent transepidermal water loss (TEWL),” Palacios explains. “This can cause dryness and irritate sensitive skin, while increasing the appearance of fine lines or lackluster skin.”

The Correct Skincare Routine Order

While morning and night follow the same key essentials, they differ slightly in product recommendation.

“In the morning, the role of your skincare is to balance and protect,” Varuni explains. “At night, your skincare should help restore and correct any problematic skincare concerns. And, contrary to what brands and department stores want you to think, you do not need a million steps in your skincare routine. Your routine should be affordable, effective, and something you can stick to. Consistency is the key.”

It’s also important to note that, “Everyone’s skin is different, so there can’t be (and shouldn’t be) a one-size-fits-all-skincare routine for everyone,” says Lozina. “Based on your skin type, you need to address your specific skin condition with the proper skincare products for your type of skin.”


Regardless of the specific products or brands recommended for your skin type, below are universal guidelines recommended for a typical morning routine. 

Step 1: Cleanse 

“To start your skincare routine in the morning, it’s important to cleanse your face properly so that whatever you put on afterwards absorbs well and you have a clean slate to work with,” says Lozina.

Palacios emphasizes keeping it gentle during this time of day. “The point of a morning cleanse is to balance the pH of your skin, reset it from overnight oil production, and clear away dirt and debris on your skin from the air or on your pillow case.”

One of the most effective, gentle cleansers in our opinion is the GROWN ALCHEMIST Gentle Gel Facial Cleanser. Packed with geranium leaf, bergamot and rosebud, this product decongests the skin and tightens the pores.   

Step 2: Treat

For daytime, Palacios suggests focusing on antioxidant-rich serums like vitamin C. 

“Antioxidants reduce DNA damage from harmful UV rays, improve hydration, stimulate collagen production and elastin, support our skin’s healing and reduce inflammation, among a myriad of other benefits,” she explains. “For those who find any and every vitamin C serum to be intolerable, FACE REALITY Antioxidant Peptide Serum, JUICE BEAUTY Antioxidant Serum, and IS CLINICAL Super Serum Advance Plus are gorgeous, effective, antioxidant-packed serums you’ll love.”

If your skin isn’t sensitive to vitamin C, we recommend the critically acclaimed BEAUTYSTAT Universal C Skin Refiner. Formulated by Hailey Bieber’s RHODE chemist Ron Robinson, we have the highest praise for this product. 

Step 3: Balance 

Not all moisturizers are created equal. You’ll want to first select what’s best for your skin. 

“For most of us, making sure that our moisturizers are free of oil-clogging ingredients is important to prevent acne and breakouts,” says Palacios. “For oily skin, a moisturizer that’s oil-free and water-based with a gel-like texture might be the right fit. Or, if you have really dry skin, you live in a drier climate, or you’re a makeup-free girlie, a creamier moisturizer packed with peptides for maximum hydration may be nicest.”

Lozina loves the UNTOXICATED Moisture Boost Hydrating Cream because it contains hyaluronic acid, it’s dermatologist-approved, and is hypoallergenic and noncomedogenic (a.k.a. great for sensitive skin). We personally stand by the GLOW RECIPE Banana Soufflé Moisture Cream for deeply dehydrated skin and the KATE SOMERVILLE Oil Free Moisturizer for acne-prone skin. 

Step 4: SPF 

By now we hope you’re aware of the importance of sunscreen, a.k.a. protection from the sun. 

“This is the most important step for daytime skincare, as sun exposure, free radicals, and damage from harmful UV rays are the No. 1 cause of aging,” Palacios warns. “We’re also looking to prevent hyperpigmentation and dark spots formed by overactive melanocytes that are triggered by sun exposure and heat. Here, the two-finger general rule applies—you want to line two fingers worth of SPF before applying to make sure you’re using enough on your face, neck and chest.”

An SPF we always turn to when we want to prevent sun damage? The iconic VACATION INC Classic Lotion SPF 30


Much like with our bodies, nighttime is when we repair and rejuvenate our skin, too.

“Hydroxy acids [chemical exfoliants] and vitamin A derivatives are used in the evening because they are considered photosynthesizing,” Lozina explains. “This means they’re sensitive to sun/daylight exposure.”

Step 1: Double Cleanse

Unlike in the morning, your nighttime cleansing routine will be a bit more rigorous.

“The first cleanse us to remove makeup, oil, debris and pollutants,” says Palacios. “I call this ‘removing the day,’ as CLINIQUE referred to it first in the ‘90s. The second cleanse targets dead skin cells and gets down into the pore for a deeper cleanse. This step is the most important part of a nighttime routine, period.” 

For our first cleanse, we opt for an oil or balm to act as a makeup remover to melt down what’s been sitting on our face all day. Something like the classic ELEMIS Pro-Collagen Cleansing Balm will always steer you in the right direction. From there, we follow with a foam cleanser like the ORIGINS Checks and Balances Frothy Face Wash for purifying and refreshment.

Step 2: Restore With Toner or Essence 

Toners or essences play a huge role in a skincare routine, yet they’re often overlooked. While not mandatory, incorporating them into your routine will only help you. 

“The role of a toner is to replenish moisture and restore our skin’s pH levels back to neutral,” says Palacios. “With a toner, we’re looking to infuse the ingredients from the liquid in by pressing and patting, rather than use the liquid to wipe anything more off our face. Toners also keep our skin moist, which helps optimize the absorption of any products that follow. It’s important.”

A good starter product is the LAPALETTE BEAUTY Calming Green Turnover Toner. Its ingredients aren’t too harsh and it removes dead skin cells.

Step 3: Correct Skin Concerns

For anyone with a problematic skin concern, this is where you’d go in with your acne, pigmentation, or mature skin heavy-hitters. You really want to target dead cell turnover.

“For these concerns, ingredients like AHAs/BHAs and retinoids are what to look for in a serum,” says Palacios. “Most importantly, work with a skincare professional to make sure you’re using the right, high-quality ingredients for your specific concerns.” 

She stresses the importance of doing your research. “Efficacy matters,” she says. “Look for products with clinical claims backed up by data and research. Try not to fall for gorgeous packaging, higher price points or a million five-star reviews. In these cases, more doesn’t necessarily mean better, and definitely not better for you.”

For a universal serum that multitasks (and therefore saves you money), we turn to the SKIN INC My Daily Dose of Vitamins ABC+.

Step 4: Hydrate 

Once again, you can’t miss the drink of water for your skin. 

“Moisturizing the skin is the second most important step in your PM skincare routine,” says Palacios. “For most of us, a good face moisturizer can do double-duty for morning and nighttime use. It’s a cost-effective method, too. Look for something your senses enjoy (application, smell, feel) that you’ll be able to use consistently. And if you’re not oily or acne-prone, a lightweight oil to finish can be an added, hydrating touch.”

An excellent night cream we know and love is the MURAD Retinol Youth Renewal Night Cream. For something a little lighter, Lozina loves the COSMETTE Timeless Hydration Facial Moisturizer. And if your skin can tolerate it, we enjoy dousing our face with SONÄGE SKINCARE Vitality Nourishing Facial Oil to cap it all off.

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About the author
Dahvi Shira
Dahvi Shira
Dahvi Shira is a Los Angeles-based beauty writer, who has a passion for hair, makeup, and skincare. She contributes regularly to Mane Addicts and her blog, Skyelyfe. Her work has also appeared on Glossy, People, E!, Sweety High and more.
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Article Last Updated June 17, 2024 12:00 AM